Nantahala Brewing Celebrates Five Years this May

nantahala brewing

According to Joe Rowland, the owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, North Carolina, the city itself only has a population of about 1,400. That’s the first reason why some thought Rowland was a little crazy five years ago this month when he opened Nantahala.

What set Rowland apart from other startup breweries, aside from spending the early part of his life in the beverage industry, was his passion for the Appalachian Mountains. Where some would have looked at Bryson City and thought of it as a small town tucked away in the Appalachians, Rowland, who had vacationed there for years since college, knew it was a great opportunity.

What a lot of people didn’t realize when Rowland decided to open the brewery was that Bryson City is positioned in one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. And, according to Rowland, even though the city only has a population of 1,400, the national park receives about 10 million or more in tourism every year. Not a lot of other breweries can say they have that buying power already established.

The name, Nantahala, was derived from the Cherokee indians, whose eastern settlement is about nine miles from Bryson City. “The word Nantahala means land of the noon day sun,” said Rowland. “There’s the Nantahala River gorge which is about 12 miles to the west. I think it’s the second most rafted river in the country. And there’s the Nantahala National Forest, which is on the south side of [Bryson City]. The north side, of course, is Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So that’s where the name came from.”

Nantahala Brewing is in the largest county in North Carolina. But, like Rowland said, it can be hard to tell because 87 percent of the county is federal land, either national forest or national park. With such a unique location, one might think that growth would be nearly impossible. But Rowland had a belief and a plan.

The brewery started with a 10 bbl system, with the ability to make modifications for growth. With that system the brewery produced 1,200 barrels in 2014, but recently purchased nine 30 bbl tanks in the last 30 days that will take them up to 8,000 barrels this year.

“We are going into six packs in less than 30 days,” said Rowland. “We’re literally just sitting around waiting for all the components to show up. The only thing to get that’s easy is bottles because we buy truck loads and they ship out of Atlanta, which is only about three and a half hours from here. We order in on a Monday and it’ll be in the brewery on Tuesday.”

The bottling will all be done in-house with a bottling system it purchased from Cigar City Brewing and a labeler from In-Line Labeling. “Our brewmaster is an industrial engineer from the University of Florida, so we all sat down and talked about what we liked about labelers and what we didn’t like, and the way these guys are set up, is going to allow us a lot more flexibility than what they will typically design,” explained Rowland.

Nantahala is able to self distribute in the state of North Carolina, which it has done since the beginning. However, it has recently sold franchise rights to Budweiser Asheville, which distributes for Western North Carolina. “We just signed up with them for the actual market, which is six counties, which is where Asheville is,” Rowland said. “Here in the next three weeks, we are finalizing our deal with Best of Beers, which is a Budweiser distributor for Morgan and Hickory [counties], and now will go up into the Boone market.”

“We’re going to keep self distribution in the county we’re in and the two that touch us. For draft and growlers we built our own automated growler filler, so basically, in addition, to six packs, we do counter pressured filled growlers so we can put them in grocery stores and convenience stores.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with the Grossman’s since they made their announcement to build [Sierra Nevada’s] facility about an hour from us. Ken convinced me several years ago that I should never give up my self distribution rights in my direct backyard, especially for draft, because [Sierra Nevada] still self-distributes to Chico and they sell about 100,000 barrels of beer in the Chico market every year. They still handle all of it. We’re a big part of this community now, so we felt like we don’t want to lose that personal connection. It really wasn’t about the money, it was purely about making sure that we’re a good neighbor.”

According to Rowland the brewery has already surpassed its five year goal and has set its sights on the next step in the growth process, which will be building a larger facility. Not only will this help Nantahala grow and distribute more beer, but it will also help Rowland contribute back to the community in a way he enjoys already, and that’s providing greater opportunity for the citizens of Bryson City.



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